Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
“The Story of My Dovecot” describes the effect of the notorious pogrom of October 20, 1905, on the Babel family and particularly on the author himself as a boy of eleven. It is one of Isaac Babel’s most autobiographical stories. Nevertheless, the author changes a number of crucial details, including even his age, to yield greater drama. The story is thus clearly a work of fiction, yet the author rightly maintains the verisimilitude of autobiography for its powerful effect on the reader.
The situation of the boy, as the story opens, is precisely delineated: His father will build him a dovecot and buy him three pigeons for it if he gets top marks in the Russian language and arithmetic exams. He needs the very highest scores, because the quota system will admit only two Jewish boys from his form into the preparatory class. If he is accepted into the higher school, his father, with his “pauper pride,” will enjoy vicarious success. The pressures on the boy, all ultimately a result of Russian anti-Semitism at every level in the society, are sufficient to keep him in a state of permanent, anxious daydream and reverie.
The boy fails to make the quota because the wealthy Jew Khariton Efrussi, a wheat exporter, bribes the school authorities to admit his own son instead of Babel. Such betrayal by a fellow Jew is unbearable (Babel senior wants to bribe two longshoremen to beat up Efrussi)—but, again, Russian anti-Semitism is the root cause.
In the following year, young Babel succeeds in his aim, befriended by a Russian teacher, Karavayev, who gives him the A+ grade he actually earns, and by Assistant Curator Pyatnitsky, for whom the boy, in a kind of exalted trance, recites from the works of Alexander Pushkin. After the examination, Pyatnitsky makes a point of protecting young Babel from some menacing Russian schoolboys. These two Russian humanitarians are important exceptions to the widespread anti-Semitism.
The “pauper’s ball” that follows the boy’s admission into the first class offers insight into the ways that the Babel family copes with life. While Father is delirious with victory (prematurely, as always), Mother is in despair, unable to see the future except as disaster. The reader learns that Grandfather had been a rabbi, was “thrown out for blasphemy,” and is now starting to go insane. One uncle had died in a house of ill-fame; another is crazy. Granduncle Shoyl is full of wonderful, lying stories about his past; he now sells fish at the market. All dance and sing while young Babel pictures himself as David having defeated Goliath: “the Russian boys with their fat cheeks” as well as the sons of Jewish parvenus.
At last, the day comes to visit the market and buy pigeons from Ivan Nikodimych. The young lad’s joy is destroyed, however, when he hears that Shoyl is perhaps dead. The pogrom, which has grown out of celebrations following the Constitutional Manifesto of October 17, has begun. While police officers look the other way, hordes of Russian scum, many poorer even than Jews, loot Jewish homes and businesses. (The Russian government connived in such pogroms, which sometimes led to the injuring and killing of hundreds of Jews, because they took people’s minds away from revolution.)
Young Babel approaches his friend Makarenko, a cripple in a wheelchair, to ask about Shoyl. Makarenko, however, is in a fit of rage because he and his wife are unable to steal all the things that they believe they deserve to have. Doubly angered because the boy has nothing more valuable than pigeons, he smashes the boy on the head with one of the birds. The boy lies on the ground in a daze, with pigeon entrails running down his face.
In the moment of violence, as he overhears Makarenko’s wife remark, “Their spawn must be wiped out,” young Babel comes to a deep understanding of life. The author as narrator writes that he walked home, “weeping bitterly, full and happily as I never wept again in all my life.” A certain genius is required to find the word “happily” here; it denotes that the boy will no longer live in a state of illusion—and that he knows it. In his new awareness, he is able to accept the shocking and ignominious death of Shoyl, who, as he died, had cursed his killers thoroughly—“a wonderful damning and blasting it was.”